A Bull in a China Shop: Mark Hughes and Barcelona

Since that November Milanese night in 2010, Gareth Bale has been lauded as a world class footballer and has been linked with most of Europe’s elite clubs, such as Inter Milan, the team that he tore apart (twice), Juventus and Real Madrid. Throughout the past season, Barcelona have begun to emerge as the team that appear to want him most, but one ex-Barcelona player has warned Bale of making the switch to Catalonia: Barcelona’s ‘bull’ and ex-Lost Boyo at the club, Mark Hughes. Hughes was just 22 when he made the switch to the Nou Camp, the same age as Wales’s current flying winger. In a recent interview, Hughes warned Bale that he should remain at Tottenham for the near future and learn from the mistake he made in moving to Barcelona:

“I went when I was young and it was probably a little bit too soon for me. Ideally if I had had the opportunity later I would have been more successful than I was. I think there is time for Gareth in the future if he thinks that is what he wants to do. I went when I wasn’t married and didn’t have any children and my life wasn’t as settled as it would have been at 26, 27, 28 and that always helps when you have that support.”

Hughes may have a point, but Barcelona may only coming knocking once and who wouldn’t want to play for the best and most exciting team of the past 5 years? Would Bale be better at Barcelona or Real is an issue that we addressed at the start of the year.

Some people have claimed that Hughes is resentful towards the Catalan club, but Hughes in later years would claim he held no antipathy about his time at the club and even suggested that he is regretful about the minimal contribution he made to the great club.

So what exactly went wrong for ‘Sparky’ at Barca?

A young Mark Hughes in his first spell at Manchester United

Barcelona is a huge club, probably one of the biggest on the planet, but a young Mark Hughes would not be overwhelmed by playing for a big club having played at a big club for the duration of his pre-Barcelona career with Manchester United. Hughes was picked up by United’s North Wales talent scout Hugh Roberts after finishing school near his hometown of Wrexham in 1980. There were scouts from various club sides watching Hughes play for Wrexham District schoolboys, but it was United that would snap him up. Roberts had been tracking Hughes from a young age having first seen him play in a U13s game. Roberts said that Hughes immediately stood out from other young players, particularly his ability to shield the ball and lay it off to his team mates with Roberts saying he would “do all the things a professional would do.” “Sparky” would not make his debut for the Manchester club until 3 years after he’d signed for the club, coming off the bench to replace Norman Whiteside in a League Cup fixture against Port Vale. The League Cup would bring Hughes his first start in December 1983 against Oxford United; the Reds were 1-0 down to Oxford and Hughes became an instant hit by scoring the equalising goal. In his debut season, Hughes would make fleeting appearances for the first team and he finished the season with an impressive 4 goals in 7 appearances.

At the end of the 1984 season, Hughes also made his debut for Wales against no less than England. Within 17 minutes Hughes gave Wales the lead with a trademark header. Wales would famously win the game 1-0 at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground against Bobby Robson’s strong England team – Wales could have won by more.

The Welsh triumph almost acted as a catalyst for Hughes’ career as he began to make a real impact at Manchester United during the 1984/85 season. Hughes would make 38 league appearances under Ron Atkinson’s United this season, playing alongside Frank Stapleton; Hughes would notch 16 goals and 24 overall for the season. Hughes took the place of Norman Whiteside up front with Whiteside moving back into midfield to cover for the departure of Ray Wilkins. Hughes would also get his first taste of Europe this season as he featured in the club’s UEFA Cup campaign, where United went out at the quarter-final stage to Videoton, the Hungarian team currently managed by Paulo Sousa. Silverware was on the cards for Hughes though,  as United lifted the FA Cup.

In Hughes, the Stretford End felt they had finally found a hero to counter the Dalglishs and Rushs of the world who were ruling Europe just over 30 miles down the ‘East Lancs’. Hughes’ all action, and often defence-bruising, performances became legendary and at the start of the following season Hughes signed a 5-year contract with United. The Red Army were ecstatic with the news and it appeared that so was Hughes as he went on to score 10 goals in 13 games at the start of the 85/86 season. United would rocket to the top of the league, but unlike the modern era Manchester United, they displayed dismal form in the 2nd half of the season and ended the season in 4th  – doubts would be raised about Atkinson’s future with speculation that Alex Ferguson, who was excelling at Aberdeen, touted as a possible replacement.

Despite United’s disappointing fall away, Hughes recorded 17 league goals (the highest he would get in his whole career) and he had attracted the attention of a European giant.

In March 1986, Atkinson signed Peter Davenport from Nottingham Forest for £750k to ostensibly bolster United’s front line. However, it looked more likely that Davenport was signed to replace the soon to be departing Hughes. At the end of the season it was announced that Hughes would be signing for Barcelona in a deal worth around £2 million pounds with it becoming apparent that the deal had been agreed shortly after the turn of 1986.. The United fans were furious about losing their much-loved striker and many fans saw the transfer as a sign of the complete lack of ambition at the club. Atkinson would never really recover the fans’ support after the disappointing league finish, but the sale of Hughes was the final straw for the fans.

Just as United’s season was finishing in disappointment, so was Hughes new club’s as Barcelona’s European Cup curse that had haunted them throughout their history continued after the shock defeat to Steaua Bucharest in Sevilla. Barcelona were now managed by Terry ‘El Tel’ Venables, who had achieved hero status at the club in 1985 by winning them their first La Liga in 11 years. The 0-0 final in Sevilla would be remembered for Steaua’s goalkeeper Helmuth Duckadam, ‘the Hero of Seville’ and his 4 penalties saves to deny Barca the trophy. Venables’ star was beginning to diminish quickly so he decided to change his team around. Venables opted to purchase two new strikers to replenish his strike force; the two new strikers would both come from the English First Division: United’s Mark Hughes and Everton’s Gary Lineker, who had just won the Golden Boot at the 1986 World Cup. They would be joining another British striker at the club in Archigoles, better known as Steve Archibald.

Barcelona manager Terry Venables and his 2 new signings: Gary Lineker (El Matador) and Mark Hughes (El Toro)

Many Barca fans were against the signings of British players as they felt they would compromise the style of the team. However, Venables had already made a point about British players after signing Archibald and forging him into a fan favourite at the Catalan club. Venables felt that the signing of British players was necessary for a team like Barcelona to instil some grit into the team as Jimmy Burns explains in his excellent book Barca: A People’s Passion:

“Venables always insisted that he had bought British players not to turn Barca into an Anglo-Saxon fiefdom, but simply to ensure that he had players he knew would score goals. His objective was to blend British and local styles of play, rather than impose one on the other.”

Venables did not have much backing on signing Hughes from the fans or the Barcelona hierarchy with youth team trainer Jaume Olive being particularly vociferous about the signing. Burns states in his book that when Venables put the names of Lineker and Hughes forward to Club President Josep Lluis Nunez, Olive dismissed the names and put forward the names of Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit, who would actually have cost less.

It was very clear that when Hughes got on the pitch at the Nou Camp that van Basten would have been a much better option. To this very day people talk about how the Barca fans demand a spectacle from their team and Hughes’ physical style just did not appeal to the fans. Hughes was landed with the nickname “El Toro” (The Bull); some may view this nickname as complimenting Hughes’ forceful style but the fans lumbered him with the nickname because he only showed physicality in his play and very little skill. Hughes did not appear to be adapting well to life in Barcelona either as he began to take on a reclusive life away from the club. Gary Lineker explained to Burns:

“He used to go home after training and sleep in the afternoon and think about things too much. Because he couldn’t communicate with the other players, he got very solitary, and that weighed on his shoulders. The problems began on the field. Because he was struggling on the pitch, the crowd would get on his back.”

Hughes had developed a bit of a reputation at United in the previous season for his tendency to enjoy a drink, like many other players in English football at the time, but in the documentary The Mark Hughes Story, Hughes claims that his drinking habit disappeared at Barcelona as he had “no-one to go out with”. This could be seen as a positive thing as the Barcelona faithful would not embrace a player that was not a dedicated athlete, especially one that had been dubbed ‘Lager Legs’ in his early career.

Mark Hughes in the famous blue and red of Barcelona


The cules, the nickname given to Barca’s fans, were never behind the Hughes signing so they offered him little time to prove himself. After a few games they began to hound the player and manager Venables for purchasing him.

In contrast, Venables other British export, Gary Lineker was excelling at the club. Lineker, who had recently married his fiancée Michelle, moved over to Spain and adapted to the football and the lifestyle seamlessly. Lineker would also earn himself a nickname at the club, yet a much more endearing one: “El Matador” because of his graceful demeanour on the pitch.  Lineker’s defining moment would come in an El Clasico clash against Real Madrid with a performance that will always place him firmly in the heart of the cules. Lineker scored a hat-trick in the game and he still hails at as one of the best moments of his career:

When I scored that second goal was one of the three moments of my life when it’s felt as if the hairs on the back of my head were standing up.”

(Just to fill the gaps in, Lineker claimed the other two moments were when he scored the 2nd goal of his hat-trick against Poland in the 86 World Cup and the equaliser against Germany in 1990).

As mentioned  previously, Lineker arrived at the Nou Camp a married man unlike Hughes. The Linekers took to the Barca lifestyle extremely quickly, learning the language, making friends with locals and more importantly Gary was performing well on the pitch. As shown by Hughes’ advice to Bale, Hughes perhaps believes part of the reason he failed to settle at Barcelona was because he came over by himself; the fact that Hughes wasn’t the loudest and not a great communicator off the pitch would certainly not help him. Both Gary and Michelle Lineker tried to help Hughes through his time at Barcelona and were desperate for him to fall in love with the city the way they had. Hughes appeared to greatly  appreciate their kindness, but he became embarrassed and maybe even slightly frustrated with himself that he had to rely on other people to help him. Hughes’ frustration about his time in Catalonia was apparent in an interview with FourFourTwo in 2007:

 “Gary was a bit older and he was there with his wife. I was on my own. I’d just met the girl that turned out to be my wife, so it was difficult being separated from her. Barcelona signed you, paid you decent money, but that seemed to be their obligation finished with. It’s not like now where you’ve got people to organise your house, the kids’ schools, cars, everything. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t have a car so I ended up hiring one for three months because I didn’t know where to buy one. It was shambolic.”

 Hughes admitted that Lineker’s laid back attitude was much better suited to the Spanish lifestyle, unlike himself who he described as a “worrier”.

As well as struggling to adapt off the field, Hughes’ season would never really take off at Barca. Hughes would finish the season with 4 league goals from 28 league games. Hughes’ discipline on the pitch also began to irritate the Barca fans as his physical performances were not as welcome in Spain as they were at Old Trafford. Hughes biggest embarrassment at the club came in the UEFA Cup where he was sent off, much to the anger of the cules, never to regain his place in the team again.

The team and Hughes’ form may have been affected by the absence in the team of their creative force, the German international Bernd Schuster. Without Schuster, Barca struggled to create the chances that they had done in the previous seasons, leaving players such as Hughes to battle to create his own chances. Schuster had become more outspoken and critical of the manager during the 85/86 season and after being substituted in the European Cup final, Schuster’s anger found him few opportunities in the new season.

‘Meester’ Venables – exited the club in September 1987

Venables was made the scapegoat for the club’s poor showings and on the 23rd September 1987 left the club with little sympathy from the board and fans; the man endearingly known as Meester after heroically winning the club’s first title in 11 years, was now unwanted. Nunez began to the purge the team and Hughes would eventually be sent out on loan to Bayern Munich for the 1987/88 season (a story for a future Lost Boyos article maybe).

After a relatively successful time at Bayern, Alex Ferguson wanted to re-sign Hughes for Manchester United. Hughes was fairly happy in Munich but he could not resist a return to his old stomping ground. In May 1988 Hughes returned to United in a £1.8million deal, a club record at the time. In 1988/89 Hughes won the PFA Player of the Year award, despite United struggling in their early days under the Ferguson regime – the first United player to win the award. He carried on his fine performances into the next season and helped United win the FA Cup, the first trophy that Ferguson would win for the club. The FA Cup victory ensured that United would be playing in Europe in the following season.

Revenge: Mark Hughes smashes in his 2nd goal of the 1991 Cup Winners Cup Final against Barcelona in his 2nd spell at Manchester United

The season after would perhaps see one of Hughes’ most famous performances and a cathartic experience for Hughes as he and United took on his old club, Barcelona, in the Cup Winners Cup Final in Rotterdam. United won the game 2-1 with Hughes scoring both of United’s goals. The first goal was largely thanks to Steve Bruce placing a header into the far corner only for Hughes to poach it on the line. However, Hughes’ 2nd goal was perhaps a release of pure frustration at his time at the Catalan club; Bryan Robson played a beautiful chipped pass over the Barca defence for Hughes to run on one-on-one with Carles Busquests in the Barcelona goal; two touches and he was around the Barca goalie but he had hit the ball very wide of the goal; with an open goal about 18 yards away from goal, Hughes smashed the ball with the outside of his foot crashing into the open net. The aggression and power in which Hughes hit the ball may have been Hughes emphatically showing Barcelona what they’d missed out on. Although Hughes admitted later that he did not hold any grudge against the club:

“They tried to play on the fact before the game that I was looking for revenge but that wasn’t the case. I didn’t have any great issue with Barcelona; I thought it was a great club, a great city and nice people. I had a fantastic opportunity for a young player to go to a club like that and, if I’m honest, I didn’t take it.”

Mark Hughes celebrates with the Cup Winners Cup trophy after defeating his old club Barcelona 2-1 in the final in Rotterdam.

For anyone more interested in learning more about Hughes and Lineker’s time at Barcelona and to learn more of the fascinating history of the Catalan club, I cannot recommend Jimmy Burns’ ‘Barca: A People’s Passion’ enough.

3 thoughts on “A Bull in a China Shop: Mark Hughes and Barcelona

  1. Pingback: A Rush to Get Home « Lost Boyos

  2. Pingback: Retrospective: The first 12 months of Lost Boyos « Lost Boyos

  3. Pingback: Top Boyos: Mark Hughes | Lost Boyos

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